Understanding predictive uncertainty in hydrologic modeling: The challenge of identifying input and structural errors

Benjamin Renard*, Dmitri Kavetski, George Kuczera, Mark Thyer, Stewart Franks

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

521 Citations (Scopus)


Meaningful quantification of data and structural uncertainties in conceptual rainfallrunoff modeling is a major scientific and engineering challenge. This paper focuses on the total predictive uncertainty and its decomposition into input and structural components under different inference scenarios. Several Bayesian inference schemes are investigated, differing in the treatment of rainfall and structural uncertainties, and in the precision of the priors describing rainfall uncertainty. Compared with traditional lumped additive error approaches, the quantification of the total predictive uncertainty in the runoff is improved when rainfall and/or structural errors are characterized explicitly. However, the decomposition of the total uncertainty into individual sources is more challenging. In particular, poor identifiability may arise when the inference scheme represents rainfall and structural errors using separate probabilistic models. The inference becomes ill-posed unless sufficiently precise prior knowledge of data uncertainty is supplied; this ill-posedness can often be detected from the behavior of the Monte Carlo sampling algorithm. Moreover, the priors on the data quality must also be sufficiently accurate if the inference is to be reliable and support meaningful uncertainty decomposition. Our findings highlight the inherent limitations of inferring inaccurate hydrologic models using rainfall-runoff data with large unknown errors. Bayesian total error analysis can overcome these problems using independent prior information. The need for deriving independent descriptions of the uncertainties in the input and output data is clearly demonstrated.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberW05521
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2010


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